Beginning New Year's Day, Oregon police officers may hear some arguing when they start pulling motorists over for violating a new law banning them from talking on hand-held cell phones while driving.
The new law, passed by the 2009 Oregon Legislature, exempts motorists who are on their hand-held cell phones "in the scope of the person's employment if operation of the motor vehicle is necessary for the person's job." The exemption was intended for taxi drivers, delivery trucks, tow trucks and the like.
Law enforcement officials are getting ready for some motorists to try to drive through that legal loophole by insisting, for example, that a call to a co-worker who also happens to be a friend is really for business purposes.
"There is a gray area," says Oregon State Police Lt. Gregg Hastings. "It doesn't clearly define what jobs fall under the exemption. Ultimately, maybe judges are going to have to clarify that."
With the new law, Oregon joins a half dozen other states that ban drivers from talking on hand-held cell phones while driving. Police officers can pull someone over under the Oregon law and violators face a minimum fine of $142.
However, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety says that only Oregon has included such a broadly worded exemption. Other states that ban cell phones allow use by emergency responders or tow truck drivers, the industry group says.
"It doesn't make sense to carve out this exemption if you want the law to have some bite," spokesman Russ Rader said. "You just make it more likely that drivers will believe that even if they are stopped by a police officer they can get out of getting a ticket."
Oregon lawmakers were aiming to combat distracted driving when they passed the new cell phone law, which also bans text messaging while driving.
Under the law, drivers 18 and older can use a cell phone while driving if they are using a hands-free accessory. Drivers under age 18 are banned from using all mobile communication devices, hands-free or not. The exemption was inserted into the law after business lobbyists warned against cell phone restrictions that they said would unduly interfere with business.
One of the chief sponsors of the bill, Rep. Carolyn Tomei, said the compromise language was needed to help the bill win approval. She also said the intent was to offer the exemption only to those whose vehicles are tantamount to being their workplace.
"It was pretty clear in our minds that nobody can use a hand-held cell phone while driving unless their vehicle is part of their job — the tow truck driver, the bus driver, taxi drivers, delivery people," Tomei said.
But that's not spelled out in the law.
"Certainly there are going to be some professions that are a little ambiguous," said Sgt. Derel Schulz, head of the Eugene police department's traffic division.
"Sometimes it takes until the next legislative session until some of the language gets worked out, or the courts have a chance to interpret it," he said.
Schulz said he's been asked by various people about whether jobs would let them qualify for the exemption. He got such a query from a nursery owner. Schulz said in his judgment that profession would qualify for the exemption because landscapers' vehicles are necessary for their jobs. Despite the lack of clarity, Schulz said the new law is a good start.
"The goal is to reduce the number of distractions" people have while driving, he said. "It may not cover all the distractions, but it's a good step in the right direction."
It likely will take awhile to judge the law's effectiveness and to see whether traffic courts get clogged with motorists challenging traffic tickets by arguing that their vehicle is, in essence, their workplace.
Jay Waterbury, president of the Oregon Association Chiefs of Police, suspects that many local police agencies at first will use a grace period in which officers will issue warnings — but not $142 traffic citations — to those who are observed violating the ban. "What we're after is compliance. If we can get that by giving warnings for a little while, then great," said Waterbury, who is police chief in The Dalles.
Waterbury and other law enforcement officials say that despite the uncertainty surrounding the employment exemption, banning use of hand-held cell phones is a big step toward improving highway safety.
They cite figures from the Oregon Department of Transportation showing 15 people were killed in 2006, 2007 and 2008 by crashes where cell phones played a role. Cell phones were also a factor in 1,048 crashes during those three years.
Salem real estate broker Sylvia Perry supports the new law — she is planning to purchase a hands-free device by this weekend — but she believes real estate agents are probably as deserving of being exempted as delivery truck drivers.
"What if I'm talking to someone, getting directions to their house? That's the same thing a delivery driver does," Perry said.
Still, she said, "I guess if the law saves one life, it's a good thing."